DC Comics will launch a line of prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic 1986 graphic novel Watchmen on June 6th with Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 by acclaimed writer/artist Darwyn Cooke. The Before Watchmen project – which also includes comics by well-known creators such as Joe Kubert, Brian Azzarello and J. Michael Straczynski – has been a lightning rod in the comics world, drawing responses ranging from curious enthusiasm to outright disdain, as many fans and creators believe that continuing Moore and Gibbons’ highly influential and pointedly self-contained masterpiece is akin to sacrilege.
Rolling Stone caught up with Cooke – a cartoonist best known for his work on DC: The New Frontier and his revival of Will Eisner’s The Spirit – to discuss how he got involved with Before Watchmen, what inspired him to write new stories featuring Moore and Gibbons’ characters and what he would say to fans who are outraged by the very existence of the project.
How did you get involved with this big Watchmen project?
I was kind of dragged into it kicking and screaming by [DC Comics co-publisher] Dan DiDio. He had been discussing this for what does amount to several years now, and the first time he had approached me about it, I had actually turned it down simply because I couldn’t see doing anything that would live up to the original. And, it was about a year later, the story idea that I’m working on now sort of came to me and I realized that there was a way to do the project, and I had a story that I thought was exciting enough to tell. So I phoned Dan up and said, “Hey, if you still got room, I’m in.”
Without really giving anything away, what is the basic premise of what you’re doing?
I’m working on Minutemen, which were of course the original group of masked adventurers that appeared in the Forties [in the original Watchmen]. And while they aren’t a focal point of Watchmen, they’re sort of a starting point for the story. We frankly don’t see a lot of the Minutemen and for the most part, they’re not fleshed out as characters [in the original book]. There’s also quite a bit of speculation and mystery surrounding why they ended up disbanding and what happened to some of the members.
The two things I’m doing are sort of addressing what their history and what it is that actually happened to bring about their demise, and I’m trying to look at them as people, as characters and engage the reader that way. We really get into who they are, their strengths and weaknesses. And I’m trying to keep in mind the fact that they all sort of come at it from different points of view, but in their own way, they’re all trying to do something good. What we do know about the characters, some of it is not so good. We take the two of these things and put them into conflict with each other, I think it makes for a good story.
What is the idea behind your Silk Spectre miniseries with the artist Amanda Conner?
With Silk Spectre it’s a completely different premise. Minutemen is a story that spans – if you take it all into account – probably from 1910 all the way up to 1962, 1963. It’s a huge story, featuring a huge cast. With Silk Spectre, we are doing pretty much the opposite. We are really zeroing in on a couple months in Laurie’s life, at a turning point. She is 16, and her mother, the original Silk Spectre, is pushing her towards the Silk Spectre persona. It’s the story of her coming of age, basically. That’s a far more personal and intimate story. There is still something of an outrageous backdrop. There is a plot driving the story, but it really is about Laurie coming of age and making her decision regarding being Silk Spectre, and how she is going to be Silk Spectre in comparison with what her mother says about it.
You have worked on other characters that you haven’t created, like the DC Comics super heroes and Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Is it intimidating going into these Watchmen characters since they have only been written and illustrated by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon nearly 30 years ago?
It is, to a degree. You do point out something that is kind of important, at least for me – I went through this with The Spirit, and at the time that I went into that project it was pretty much the same situation. Frankly, I would place The Spirit‘s contribution to the medium probably ahead of Watchmen and I found that a more intimidating situation. I think that Watchmen is brilliant, and I worry every day about whether the quality of my work is living up to what’s already there. But, no I found that with the characters themselves I’m kind of embracing the opportunity to delve into their lives a little bit.
Alan and Dave, their core story of Watchmen is brilliant. Alan is the kind of guy, he’s so brilliant that with very little information he put into the story about the Minutemen, it has created an entire arena in which I’m able to craft this story. So, you know, I just go about it and try to do the best I can. And try not to contradict or disturb what I would say was the original creators’ intent with their characters. To me that has always been the key when I approach someone else’s characters, and it doesn’t matter whose characters they are, it really doesn’t. I always try to look at the creation of the character, and the intent of the creator and I try to make sure that what I do falls within those boundaries.
There has been some negative reaction from comics fans and creators to this Watchmen project, with many people upset that there is going to be anymore Watchmen at all, regardless of who is doing it. What would you say to those people?
I guess the first thing I would say is, I understand how you feel. I have certainly felt that way about things. I would say I understand that kind of an emotional response to something that meaningful. I think it’s all fair game. I’ve read some pretty nasty things said about myself, for example. I can deal with that. There are times when I wish some of these guys – because I think some of them know better – I wish they would take a moment and stop and think. And instead of referring to a man like [veteran artist] Joe Kubert as a scab or a disgrace, you might want to stop for a minute and think with this diverse group of talent involved with the project, maybe there is more to the story than they know. Maybe there are reasons people are willing to work on this. Maybe its not as clear cut as a lot of people think. I’m speaking about this from a distance. I was never in the room, while anything went on, but maybe there’s just more to the story than people think.
When you say there’s more to the story, do you just mean like the issue of who really owns the rights to Watchmen?
No, legally I think that’s clear as a bell. I think that there are two sides to this. There is a legal side, and what I refer to as a moral side, or an ethical side. And I think that every individual has to be able to look at both of these things and make a decision for themselves. I know that for myself that when I got into this industry, which was very late in life, I was in my late 30s, I had the time to read all the stories, I knew the history of this industry inside and out.
I had to make a decision when I got into this. I never had to stop and think “how am I going to honor Alan Moore with this, how am I going to morally resolve this.” What I had to do was morally resolve being in the business at all. And that’s because I don’t consider Alan and David any worse treated than [Superman creators] Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster or [Fantastic Four, Hulk, X-Men and Captain America co-creator] Jack Kirby or dozens and dozens of other people that were involved in this industry. So as I went into it, understanding all of that, I thought “Well, how can I make my peace with it.”
I made a very deliberate and very conscious decision the day that I got involved with this business to honor the work that had come before me, and to respect the work of the men that had come before me. I can’t give the Siegel and Shusters what they deserve, and I certainly can’t give Alan Moore what he deserves, or what he thinks he should get out of this. That’s all beyond my power. But what I can do is have respect for what he’s done, and try to do my best to live up to that.